Everyone knows about York’s Roman and Viking history, but not so many people realise it has a wealth of luxury boutique accommodation and a thriving cultural scene, with cool neighbourhoods full of independent shops, restaurants and cafés, as well as countless museums, theatres and attractions. York is an ideal size for exploring on foot, and is surrounded by some of England’s most beautiful countryside; it is only just over two hours by train from London or Edinburgh.
Few cities in the world can rival York for history and character. A picturesque riverside city encircled by ancient walls, York has a fascinating story that goes back 2,000 years. Every street and ginnel (Yorkshire dialect for alleyway) seem to reveal another historic site or lovely view, while York Racecourse, on the fringes of the city, is one of the UK’s oldest racecourses and offers a great day out.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do. For further York inspiration, see our guides to the city’s best hotels, restaurants, shopping, nightlife and things to do.
Start your day at York Minster, a Gothic beauty and the largest Medieval cathedral in Northern Europe. For full atmospheric effect, approach the Minster via The Shambles, an ancient cobbled street mentioned in the Domesday Book, where the upper storeys of the 14th-century timber houses lean out, almost to within touching distance of each other.
Then, travel back in time at York Castle Museum. The 80-year-old museum is best known for its authentic street of salvaged shop fronts, replicating the city’s stores and living rooms from the Georgian era to the 1980s. To get a panoramic view of the city, climb to the top of nearby Clifford’s Tower opposite the museum. This ancient fortified mound and keep has a gruesome history and is all that remains of the original Norman castle. The tower is undergoing major repairs and is closed until spring 2022 but is still worth a look even if you can’t go inside.
For lunch, head to Mr P’s Curious Tavern. Part Victorian curiosity shop, part swanky restaurant, it is a departure from chef Andrew Pern’s other two successes – the phenomenal Star Inn (at Harome), which is closed until further notice due to an arson attack in late 2021, and The Star Inn The City, just down the road. Think 19th-century lanterns, racks of jamón and artificial trophy animal heads on the walls.
Over on Coppergate, The Jorvik Viking Centre’s olfactory experiences, some more pleasant than others, have always brought to life what was a thriving 19th-century Viking city. After a multi-million pound refurbishment, the interactive exhibition is back with even more insight into one of Britain’s most exciting archaeological discoveries. Look out for the ultra life-like old woman on crutches and the baby crying its mother’s arms.
Afterwards, lose an hour or two in Browns, an old-school department store and a York institution. Pick up designer brands such as Ralph Lauren and Barbour, or bedding and linens by Joules and Julian Charles. There’s also a nail bar and a restaurant with smartly attired waiters serving Sunday lunches and afternoon teas.
Discover York’s winding alleyways on the Bloody Tour of York in the company of “Mad Alice”, a figure of local folklore, who is thought to have been hanged in York Castle in 1823. The tour starts at 6pm every Thursday, Friday and Saturday outside St Williams College, on College Street (an eight-minute walk from Brown’s) and ends around 7.30pm by Clifford’s Tower.
For dinner, The Rattle Owl is a good option that has been garnering plaudits since it opened. Inside, it’s New York loft meets 17th-century Grade I listed building, with walls of exposed brick and the original parquet flooring. A well-balanced menu – five each of starters, main courses and desserts – features whipped Yorkshire blue cheese with figs, duck breast, and Medjool dates and poached rhubarb Anglaise.
For after-dinner drinks, stroll over to the recently opened Micklegate Social, sister bar of Fossgate Social. It’s in a lovely old corner building and stocks a range of wines, spirits and craft beers. For more suggestions of the best nightlife in city, see our guide.
Covering the journey of chocolate from raw jungle cocoa bean to the substance that became York’s most profitable export, York’s Chocolate Story, uses immersive set pieces to uncover the history of York’s famous confectionary dynasties – Terry’s and Rowntree’s – and gives a fascinating flavour of the city’s rich social history too.
A five-minute walk away, the Merchant Adventuers’ Hall is a timber-framed museum on the banks of the River Foss, originally built in the 14th-century as a place of worship, business and charity. Three separate halls contain gold and silver collections, furniture and paintings, providing a fascinating glimpse into more than 600 years of history. For more suggestions of the best things to do in the city, see our guide.
For lunch, head to Café No.8 Bistro. This cosy trattoria with a secluded garden has built reputation for well executed, unfussy bistro dishes. For more suggestions of the best restaurants in the city, see our guide.
Take in a matinee at York Theatre Royal, which reopened in 2016 after a multi-million pound refit that includes a state-of-the-art sound system.It’s one of the UK’s oldest theatres and has a broad schedule of consistently good-quality acts, from Shakespeare to pantomime, acting workshops and live music. Tickets are often available on the day unless the production is very popular or in the evening, otherwise it’s recommended to book ahead.
Dinner at The Star Inn The City in the Lendal Engine House is a special affair. Scooping design awards (the views inside and out are gorgeous) for the reimagining of an old water board building between the River Ouse and Museum Gardens, there is nowhere in York doing British cooking this confidently.
Round the evening off with drinks at Valhalla, a ‘Norse’ themed music bar and café just round the corner from The Shambles. It was created by Viking fanatics who went to great lengths with the décor – touches include a skull and horn in a glass cabinet, flickering electric candles and hefty oak tables as rugged as Thor himself. Music is mainly rock and there’s a good choice of wines, spirits and local beers.
Bishopthorpe Road, better known as ‘Bishy Road’, is full of independent shops and restaurants. Head to The Fisherman’s Wife for fish and chips and Bishopgate Antiques for reproduction and antique furniture, military bric-a-brac and motoring memorabilia. There’s also an annual street party every June or July.
Visit York Minster at evensong to listen to one of the UK’s oldest choirs. It takes place every day at 5.15pm, from Monday to Saturday and at 4pm on Sundays.
The York Pass comes as either a one-day York City Card (with free entry to 25 attractions) or a 2, 3 or 6 Day York & Beyond Explorer Pass (49 attractions). From £45.
Grays Court York, the oldest continuously inhabited house in England, dates back to 1091 and is just a few steps from the Minster. The elegant rooms are all on the second floor and the best have a direct Minster or garden view. The large, mature garden has steps straight onto the walls (the city’s only house with this access).
Did you know?
York is considered by some to be one of Europe’s most haunted cities, with an untold number of sighting and haunted buildings – discover them on a guided ghost walk.
Where to stay
Slap-bang next to the railway station, the Principal York blends the grandeur of late Victorian architecture with sympathetically refurbished luxury interiors. There’s a pool, gym, spa and treatment room and the city’s medieval walls are a five-minute walk away, shops and restaurants 10 to 15.
Doubles from £116, room only.
A recent addition to the city’s accommodation roster, Malmaison York has been fashioned out of a 1960s office block, a five-minute walk from the railway station. Expect bold colours, pop art, funky meeting pods and a slinky rooftop cocktail bar.
Doubles from £118, room only.
For the cost, the bright, buzzing, brilliant, neon-splashed Safestay – a reinvented hostel housed in a historic Georgian building close to the city walls — is a hard-to-beat budget option and a cut above anywhere in its price range in terms of facilities and quality. All rooms feature dark wood, chunky furniture and have touches of great design. There are a handful of double rooms. For more suggestions of the best hotels in the city, see our guide.
What to bring home
Pick up fat rascals from veteran Yorkshire tea room Bettys. Made to a long-standing secret recipe, these plump, fruity rock cakes are a cross between a bun and a scone.
For something sweet, opt for hand-made chocolates from Monk Bar Chocolatiers. The chocolates are created on the premises using the finest quality ingredients from France and Belgium and visitors can watch the various stages of production.
When to go
There is no off-season in York. All year round, regardless of the weather, festivals and events draw cultural tourists, historians, shoppers, foodies and sports fans to the city. Spring and summer are the busiest and most expensive period, and the high point for the city’s many events, including the racing season (meetings at York Racecourse run from May until October). If you don’t enjoy crowds, avoid weekends in July and August.
York really comes to life in autumn and winter. It’s cold but magical, lamp-lit and atmospheric; imagine a pale moon rising over the shadow of The Minster, the evening streets filled with the sound of bells. Many pubs have open fires to warm up by after a walk along cobbled streets or river paths and there are few more romantic places to be in the run up to Christmas. Under a dusting of snow, the Christmas Market’s stalls, lights and carolling attract a crowd of shoppers, who leave giddy as kippers after too many mulled ciders.
Know before you go
The best local tourist information service is visityork.org, which also has offices and incredibly helpful staff at 1 Museum St, York, YO1 7DT (tel: 01904 554455).
A handy NHS Walk-In Centre is located at 31 Monkgate, York, YO31 7WA (01904 725 401); open daily between 8am-6pm. For more serious problems and A&E, York Hospital is on Wigginton Road, York, YO31 8HE.
Currency: Pound sterling
Telephone code: 00 44
Tina grew up in nearby Leeds and spent many childhood summers discovering York’s ancient nooks and crannies. Today, she’s more likely to be found hunting down the city’s many places to eat, drink and shop.
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